EA Sports must be hoping that Tiger Woods' well-publicized slump in recent months doesn't extend beyond the golf course. That sort of jinx would be most unwelcome in mid-February when the sports game giant unveils Tiger Woods PGA Tour 2002. The latest edition in the company's long-running golf series is being promoted as the best yet, courtesy of a complete redesign that has jettisoned almost every aspect of the previous version--not a bad idea given the way that the previous game failed to make much of a dent in Microsoft's Links empire.
A recent alpha build indicates that this will certainly be much more than the usual sports sequel. Developer Headgate Studios, well known for its work on the highly acclaimed PGA Championship Golf series for Sierra, has gone back to the drawing board and come up with what could be regarded as an evolutionary leap in golf game design. For the first time, virtual duffers should be able to enjoy their favorite sport without making any compromises in terms of simulation and graphical quality. Eye candy fans and simulation buffs who treasure an authentic experience over everything else should be equally pleased with what they'll find here.
Tiger Woods 2002 definitely looks the part. One of the biggest problems of the last few editions in the series--sluggish, clunky visuals that made all but the most powerful computer systems grind to a halt--has been eliminated with the introduction of an all-new graphical engine that is quick and capable of rendering gorgeous visuals. The player models are as lifelike as those in sister titles such as NHL 2002 and Madden NFL 2002. Tiger and his seven fellow PGA pros have been drawn with thousands of polygons, giving them an authentic look, right down to Jesper Parnevik's trademark flipped-up cap and Mark Calcavecchia's pale complexion. The players also move in a realistic fashion. The various swing types are dead-on, as are celebratory fist pumps, running after putts, picking blades of grass, and various other signature moves familiar to the included pros. Like in other recent EA Sports games, you can even see the players blinking.
The course artwork is just as impressive. Objects never become masses of blocky pixels when seen close up. Get intimate with a tree (so to speak), and you'll see nothing but intricately drawn individual leaves. The textures are also very sharp. Zoom right in on a wedge shot out of the rough, and you'll not only see defined blades of grass, but you'll also see those blades of grass ripped from the ground in the wake of your club. About the only drawback is the inclusion of just six courses, most of which are tried and true veterans like Pebble Beach, Royal Birkdale, and Spyglass Hill. Free-floating cameras enable you to look at these familiar courses from new angles, though. Simply right-click and rotate the mouse to pan all around your golfer, or click on any part of the overhead map detailing each individual hole to shift your viewing perspective. All these points of view can be accessed instantly. Load times were virtually nonexistent on the two machines we used to test Tiger Woods 2002. Both a Pentium III 600 and an Athlon XP 1700 equipped with GeForce 3 video cards ran the game at its highest settings with no problems.
Not Just A Pretty Face
There seems to be a lot here beyond the visual gloss as well. Headgate is using a refined version of its highly regarded real-time "trueswing" interface called total control swing technology (TCS) as the primary control method. This updated mouse-swing system is very similar to what was on display in the PGA Championship series, albeit with some important changes that make it easier to use. The most noteworthy new wrinkle is the TCS analyzer, a pop-up screen shown while each shot is in the air. This window gives immediate feedback on how your last stroke played out in terms of club path, power, and impact. Though some purists might find that these numbers make the game a little too scientific, it seems to be a great way of directly communicating the "feel" of each shot. It should also help those who have difficulty figuring out what they're doing wrong. In all other respects, the TCS interface seems identical to trueswing. Both provide an uncanny simulation of swinging a golf club merely by moving your mouse up and down or from side to side. Of course, traditionalists can still switch over to a three-click swing.
The physics appear to be highly advanced. The ball reacts in a realistic fashion to the way you shoot, the terrain, and the weather. All the factors that come into play during a round of golf in the real world are present here. A slice is still a slice, whether you hit it with a mouse or a club, and you'd better make sure that you compensate for gusting winds, dry greens, and rolling fairways. Some design adjustments still need to be made, particularly in regard to chipping power, though the developers are aware of these issues and are working on correcting them.
As is usual with an EA Sports game, a premium is being placed on the number and variety of game modes. Along with all the golf game standards, multiple-season PGA Tour career play will be offered, complete with qualifying school events. Side points will be an option to make each round a little more interesting. If enabled, these points will be handed out for accomplishments like birdies, up and downs, holes in one, and so on. The skills competition and tour challenge modes will add even more spice. The former pits players against one another in specific prearranged situations, such as driving for distance, chipping to the pin, and hitting out of the rough. Tour challenge is similar in that it also forces you to meet particular objectives, but it is a solo mode of play where you have to accomplish established goals, such as playing the par threes at Spyglass and finishing no more than one shot over par. This mode is set up in a ladder format where you need to successfully complete each stage before moving on. One more new feature is the caddy book, an option that gives players added information and tips.
Additional frills include improvements to the series' course architect program. It will now come with a converter that allows you to update user-designed courses for previous versions of Tiger Woods PGA Tour. David Feherty and Bill Macatee are handling audio commentary, though their broadcast-booth work is barely in evidence in the alpha build. Internet and LAN support will be provided for many of the game options.
With Tiger Woods PGA Tour 2002, EA Sports seems poised to up the ante in its battle with Microsoft for control of the lucrative PC golf market. Even in these early stages, it's obvious that the company may finally release a golf game worthy of its spokesman. That's good news for both Tiger fans and those who don't want to wait until the spring to get back out on the greens. Look for the game in stores around February 12.